Abbas waves finger 248.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seem headed for their first meeting in late September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, with Netanyahu on Wednesday terming Abbas's apparent agreement to meet as his "first positive step."
"If Abu Mazen [Abbas] really means what he has said, then this is a positive step," Netanyahu said at a press briefing in Berlin, where he arrived after meeting US Mideast envoy George Mitchell in London earlier in the day. "I've been saying for a while that I am ready to renew negotiations."
Netanyahu was responding to an AP report quoting Palestinian officials saying Abbas would be willing to meet next month at the UN. The meeting would be the first between the two leaders since Netanyahu took office in March. Abbas has up until now said he would not begin negotiations with Netanyahu until there was a total settlement freeze.
The Palestinian officials said Abbas was not dropping his conditions, and that the meeting would be a chance to talk, but would not constitute negotiations.
Netanyahu said that "some progress" was registered at his meeting with Mitchell, but that additional meetings were needed. The goal, he said, was to find a formula that would enable the launching of the diplomatic process, while enabling "normal life" to continue in the settlements.
The prime minister announced that he would send a delegation to the US next week to continue meeting with Mitchell, and that the US envoy would be returning to Israel for more meetings in the first half of September.
Netanyahu repeatedly declined to give any details of the discussion on the settlements with Mitchell, and laughed when asked about a report in the Arab media that he had agreed with Mitchell to a settlement freeze.
He also dismissed a report in the Guardian that the formula being worked out with Mitchell was a partial settlement freeze in exchange for a more aggressive US stand against Iran's nuclear program. Netanyahu said the US's determination on Iran had nothing to do with the settlements.
In his press briefing, Netanyahu made clear that he would add new "core issues" to the negotiation mix, whenever they were re-started: Palestinian recognition of Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people, and an acknowledgment that any agreement would effectively be "an end to the conflict." Up until now the term "core issues" have generally referred to Jerusalem, refugees and the settlements.
"We can't only talk about things that interest them," Netanyahu said. "We also have our core issues," including recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the "end of conflict" issue.
Netanyahu, who met German President Horst Koehler shortly after his arrival in Berlin, said he told the German president the same thing he told British Prime Minister Gordon Brown a day earlier, and what he would tell German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday: that the settlements were not the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but rather the failure of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
"I will not let this rest, and will raise it with presidents, leaders, editors and writers," Netanyahu said. "Imagine how things would have been had we been saying this for the last 30 years."
Netanyahu said there would be no agreement with the Palestinians without recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
The prime minister, meanwhile, did not rule out the possibility of a Palestinian state in provisional borders before a final agreement was signed, saying that with "good will," various options could be considered. Netanyahu dismissed without comment, however, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad's recent statement that the Palestinians would unilaterally declare statehood in 2011, with or without an agreement.
Israel and the US issued a joint statement after the talks between Mitchell and Netanyahu in London, saying that there had been "progress" and that Israel and the Palestinians should soon begin negotiations and "take practical steps toward furthering the peace."
The diplomatic process with the Palestinians, as well as what steps the international community needed to adopt now against Iran, were expected to dominate Netanyahu's talks Thursday with Merkel in Berlin. A day before the meeting, Merkel - currently in the thick of an election campaign against her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, renewed calls for a two-state solution in an interview to a German television station.
"We shouldn't let the window of opportunity pass," Merkel told N24. "The time is absolutely right. Let us do everything to use it."
Netanyahu will also be meeting Steinmeier.
Meanwhile, Dani Dayan, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, said Netanyahu's meeting with Mitchell "worried" him.
"I see a constant erosion in Netanyahu and the government's position regarding a freeze of construction in the settlements," said Dayan.
It's been five months since Netanyahu took office, and "his position on the most important issues is crumbling," said Dayan.
He included on his list Netanyahu's acceptance of a demilitarized Palestinian state, the de-facto freeze on permits for new construction projects in the settlements and his threats to remove unauthorized outposts.
"We do not see a single important issue in which Netanyahu has stood by his commitments before the election. This is very worrisome," said Dayan
In a related development, a poll released Wednesday showed freezing settlements would be an unpopular move. Almost two-thirds of those questioned told pollsters they opposed a freeze, even in return for moves by Arab countries toward normalization of ties with. Thirty-nine percent said they would support a freeze in return for Arab gestures.
Conducted by the Maagar Mohot polling company, the survey questioned 506 Jewish Israelis and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Tovah Lazaroff, and Benjamin Weinthal and AP contributed to